OK, let's make sure we have this straight.
An oil rig operated by British Petroleum explodes in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people die. As much as 2.5 million gallons of BP oil gushes into the gulf every day. Fragile ecosystems are wrecked, sea life is slimed, fishermen and boaters who make their living from the gulf are facing ruin and BP, we discover, had no real plan for handling a catastrophe of this magnitude.
So we should apologize to BP? That was the astonishing, incomprehensible and galling conclusion of Texas Rep. Joe Barton last week in a congressional hearing. He was reacting to news President Obama had secured from BP a $20 billion escrow fund to help those whose lives were upended by the spill. You'd think that was a good thing, but Barton told BP CEO Tony Hayward, "I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure that amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize."
Hours later, under fire from Democrats and his fellow Republicans, Barton apologized for the apology and retracted it. But the damage was already done.
Indeed, the gaffe was a gift to Democrats, who wasted no time hammering the GOP with it. Why not? The apology plays right into the narrative of a GOP snugly in the pocket of Big Oil. Barton alone has accepted more than $100,000 in donations from that industry just since 2009. And according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, oil interests have given him more than $1.4 million since 1990. As we can plainly see, he works hard for the money.
Still, it seems shortsighted to frame this only in the context of one politician -- or even one party -- in thrall to a single industry. To peruse the CRP Web site (www.crp.org) is to be forcefully reminded just how much sway business interests have over what are supposedly our elected officials.
From South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who's received $145,000 from the utilities industry since 2009 to South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, who's received $322,000 since 2005 from insurance companies, to Nevada Sen. John Ensign's $305,000 from casinos since 2005 to Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek's $779,000 from lawyers since 2009, there is no shortage of lawmakers who work hard for the corporate money. What is less certain is the number who work hard for the national good.
America's democracy has become a pay-to-play system in which lack of money equals invisibility and muteness. The solution is obvious: public funding of all national political campaigns.
How else will these people know who they work for? And isn't that the crux of Barton's confusion?
Every election cycle, the people and the politicians join in an act of willful self-deception, a ritualized charade in which everybody knows the truth, but nobody speaks it. Politicians flood the airwaves with commercials that show them walking and talking with the common folk who listen with rapt attention. The final shot frames the candidate with a flag in the background as he or she gazes soulfully into the middle distance and promises to work on our behalf, to always be on our side. They pretend to mean it and we pretend to believe it.
But last week, Barton didn't even care enough to pretend. Instead, he stood tall against the people and environment of the Gulf Coast, and with the industry that gave him $1.4 million.
As he genuflects before his corporate masters, Barton also reflects the ugly underside of American politics. And validates an ancient axiom that suddenly sounds like a warning: You get what you pay for.